Josh Dallos is an emerging writer living in Leeds, United Kingdom. When he’s not writing, Josh works as a brewer and a guitar teacher. He is an avid reader, particularly enjoying thought-provoking literary fiction and imaginative sci-fi. His writing spans many genres, often taking the form of allegory exploring his own interest in meditation. Specifically, the consequences of our over-stimulated and wandering minds, and what it means to be a subjective self within a larger world. His writing aims to provoke a sense of possibility and wonder, interweaving aspects of everyday life with the surreal. If not quite laugh out loud funny, Josh’s writing is often a little tongue in cheek. Ultimately his stories are about what it means to be alive now and he hopes you enjoy them.
The Favoured Child
1 Johnny was born on the fourteenth of June, in the early evening. The ground shook as he came into the world, lights fell from the ceilings in the maternity wards, and the sky turned dark, suddenly filled with towering clouds the likes of which few had ever seen before. Johnny was far from the only baby crying at that moment, and so no one suspected his connection to the catastrophes occurring the world over. In a moment that threatens a person’s belief in the existence of their own future, there are few who can do anything other than what their ancestors would have done- whether seventy, seven hundred, or seventy thousand years ago. Johnny’s mother, Mary, was no exception to this. What could she do in this unfamiliar environment, other than hold onto her baby and whisper the promise that everything would be ok? Luckily for her- and the rest of the world- Johnny believed her. He stopped crying and the ground ceased to tremble. The following days were unlike any that had preceded them. Volcanoes thought long-dead erupted, tsunamis reshaped coastlines, lightning storms caused power cuts across the planet, and great chasms began opening seemingly anywhere they pleased. All this with absolutely no regard for the bustle of human life going on all around. When the ground shakes a baby is expected to cry. It took some time- assisted by the imagination brought on of sleep deprivation- for Johnny’s parents to suspect there might be a peculiar correlation between their baby’s disposition and the destruction being wrought upon the Earth. “What kind of world have we brought our baby into?” Mary wailed one night in those first few weeks. She was clearly distraught. Johnny’s father, Fred, looked to Mary and smiled sadly. His eyes were damp and his mind almost completely free from thought. “I don’t know. . . Sometimes I wonder what kind of baby we have brought into the world. These temper tantrums of little Johnny’s are going to bring down the walls.” He forced a laugh, but the fear in his eyes told another story. There was a grain of truth in his words- a doubt, a question, hidden in his making light of the situation. Mary saw this, recognising his half-concealed thoughts. “I always feel like when he calms down, whatever the latest calamity was come to an end. And if I leave him, well, remember when I left him the other night to see if he would go back to sleep on his own?” “I can’t forget,” Fred nodded, stricken. “Well, I looked it up and checked. That was the exact time the meteorite came down in Russia.” “Jesus,” whispered Fred, glancing nervously at the baby snoozing in his mother’s arms. Neither say anything. Each has understood what the other has said but still doubts whether they could really both be saying what they thought they were. “We’re being silly,” Fred says, attempting to be reassuring. He shakes his head snorting a chuckle, as if rousing himself from a daze. “Of course,” agreed Mary, her conviction not as convincing as Fred’s. He looked into her eyes and echoed her words. “I mean, what kind of world have we brought this little guy into? It feels like it’s the end of ages or something.” Mary remained silent, she could tell Fred had more to say. “I mean,” he hesitated, “What if I just give him a little nip?” “Fred!” Mary protested, saying it was cruel, child abuse, and ridiculous. Fred grinned guiltily. It took a while, but in the end they agreed. What was the harm in it? Most parents have done far worse in those first days of child care, and that was when the world didn’t seem as if it were coming to an end. Fred reached over and placed his thumb and forefinger against the chubby flesh of Johnny’s forearm. It was a serious pinch, the kind which would never normally be administered to a baby, but Fred saw himself as ‘old school’, and thought it best to be sure. Better one big pinch than a life time of little ones. Johnny’s fluttering eyes flew open and he began to scream. Fred and Mary were primed for relief- how could they believe their baby was somehow causing all of these problems- but it was short lived. They heard a deep rumbling from afar. Fred whipped his hand away from Johnny, shrinking into himself in horror and wondering what on earth he had done. The rumbling continued to grow, coming closer, as Johnny really began to wail. The room was now shaking, Fred and Mary could hear the glasses in the cabinets chattering. There was a sudden flash, out of the window they saw a bright light soaring across the sky. A great fireball the size of a cow hurtled down from the heavens, impacting hard upon the ground off in the middle distance, throwing up a cloud of rock and earth. The resulting blast wave shattered all the windows in their house. Mary was already bouncing Johnny up and down, cooing shushing sounds into his delicate ears. As far as they could tell there were no more fireballs heading their way. Both Fred and Mary’s eyes were fixed on the bundle of Johnny, as he slowly drooped to sleep again. Eventually they looked to one another, horror on their faces. Neither had the slightest idea what to say.
2 Little Johnny’s parents revealed their unbelievable discovery to a nurse they had an appointment with the next day. “So, if I can just take Johnny from you for a moment,” the nurse had said innocently. She saw the look exchanged between Johnny’s parents and smiled understandingly. “It’s Ok,” she assured them, “I’ll be careful with him.” “No, it’s not that,” Mary said nervously. She glanced at Fred who just nodded back at her helplessly. The nurse smiled, nodded, and made the occasional emphatic sound, all the while trying her best not to judge the insane suspicions these sleep deprived parents went on to describe concerning their son. She might have been more concerned had the last few days not been so stressful for everyone. When the cloudless sky turned blood red and lightning cracked overhead the nurse kept her composure. She did let out a shriek when the buildings power went out as gales bellowed, slamming shut windows that had been open to a summer’s day only a moment before. Once Johnny was back in his mothers soothing arms the blue skies returned as quickly as they had left. The nurse was even more shaken under this blue sky than the red. She excused herself to fetch some colleagues- an unamused ward sister and a young nurse barely concealing a grin. Neither were smiling moments later but gasping for air as a heatwave blasted them. The temperature must have risen by twenty degrees in as many seconds, and the air was thick enough to drown in. They were all dripping with watery sweat and the room was rank with the smell of animal fear by the time Johnny had been lulled back to sleep. Next came several doctors, and some of the hospital management tagged along to see what the developing commotion was about at a time like this. Then the chaplain was brought, and several phone calls were made to individuals of varying professions and spiritual occupations. The next newcomer was as sceptical as the last, each in turn insisting on being shown evidence of Johnny’s powers. The request was met with more resistance at each new witness, and each went on in their turn to plead with the next not to provoke the child. The situation quickly spiralled out of control. There were people clamouring over each other outside in the hospital corridors, trying to video what was happening. More and more people kept arriving to investigate why the world was being turned upside down at this terrifying new intensity. By this time police and government officials had begun to arrive, wanting to see for themselves what the internet had already dubbed: ‘the apocalypse baby’, ‘judgement Johnny’, ‘the end of baes’, and finally, simply, ‘the second coming’. Fred and Mary called several of their friends and family, asking them to come down and help them. Gerard, a close friend of Fred and Mary’s, brought his lawyer, who quickly called his father- a senior judge. “This has to be enough,” protested the ward sister. “I can’t in good conscience allow this poor child to be provoked anymore.” “I’m sorry,” replied the lawyer, who sounded very smooth but kept tugging nervously at his already loosened tie. “I don’t think you have the authority to make that call.” “Oh, and I suppose you do, do you?” retorted the younger nurse. “If the parents would like my representation then I can wield that power,” he replied smugly. He looked over to Fred for support but found no acknowledgement in the distraught man’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Henry,” grumbled his father, the old Judge. “This isn’t about you, or who’s in charge. Does anyone really want to be responsible for this?” he asked, pointing his open hand at the quietly fussing baby. “Quite right,” chimed the Chaplain, “our priority must be for little Johnny here.” “Oh, must it be, eh Father?” asked the sneering Government official, who was sweating profusely from his brow and constantly having to blink his eyes free of the stinging tears. “I say what matters is the safety of my constituents!” “This baby is not bound by man’s law,” gesticulated the Chaplain. “His wrath can target the constituents of the Almighty himself.” Fred was stood in the corner of the room and had been quietly muttering to himself while this bustle was going on. “People have died. People have died,” he whimpered. “Well, something needs to be done,” said local police chief, as if up until now this had been up for debate. “Oh yeah?” snapped Gerard, “going to arrest the little terror, are ya?” “Well no, but. . .” the chief trailed off. “We have to end it!” Fred burst out energetically, only to be quickly taken aback when everyone in the room turned to look at him. Slowly and with bitter resolve, he asked the same question he had been asking himself since the previous evening, “Do we kill him?” The room was silent save for Mary’s scream. “Fred, how can you say that?” she sobbed hysterically. Fred too broke into great snotty sobs, but he continued to speak through them. “People have died, Mare. How long can we keep this up for? It’s- it’s like, when in the olden days, people would be hiding in a cave and if a baby screamed, you know, as an enemy tribe was nearby or something. Well, you know what I mean.” The air in the room grew heavy with the shame of those gathered, as they considered the snuffing out of innocence. The young nurse was the first to speak- no one else could give voice to the feelings in their hearts. “There’s no way we could know that killing this baby would even help. It could make things worse for all we know,” she glared defiantly at them, looking for who would dare meet her eyes. “Quite right,” agreed the old Judge and the Chaplain simultaneously. Each eager to show they were not harbouring the thoughts that had so polluted the room. This back and forth went on until eventually, despite the combination of his parents’ affections and several high-strength sedatives, Johnny could no longer be placated. They had all agreed Johnny should be medicated as much as possible without causing him any additional distress, but even this was not enough. A deluge was pouring outside, the likes of which could not go on for much longer and expect to be recovered from. Mary stood up and said she was leaving, if anyone had any ideas, they were welcome to stop her. She waited for a moment in vain hope, but no offerings were made. Fred looked at them, anger and hurt on his swollen face, his eyes dark from shame and tears. He wrapped his arm fiercely around his wife, and when still no one spoke out, they walked out of the room and left the hospital, heading back towards their house. When the three of them had left the Lawyer and the Government official both made vague allusions to power and consequence, but no one payed them any mind. It was clear to everyone in that room exactly who had the power. By the time they had walked through the hospital and were back outside the skies were once again blue. Nothing but puddles remaining of the biblical floods that had been raging only a few kisses, cuddles, and comforts before. Birds sang in confused song, and Johnny screamed with joy as a butterfly fluttered down onto his little button nose, flying away again before he could swing his hand wildly towards it.
3 Life carried on much as it had done before albeit with a new hierarchy of priorities. At the top of this list was keeping Johnny happy. Next was keeping him as sedated as possible without this coming into conflict with keeping him happy, or at least stable. The world held its breath for a while but eventually returned to its daily concerns and distractions. It was easier to just let Mary and Fred take responsibility for Johnny- what else could anyone really do? Various leaders made it clear they were, of course, at their disposal. How they could actually help them was not so clear, but the intent- or at least the signalling of it- was there. Johnny could never be told no twice. This protocol was rapidly taken up by those who came into contact with him. Johnny wanted a rubber ducky. But he already had a rubber ducky. Ah, but he wanted this one. Ok, no problem, Johnny could have it. Some boundaries could be established, certain limitations imposed up on him, but the price was often high. What other infant can cause two-hundred-foot high waves when they are told they need to have a bath and don’t want to? The impact upon the planet from those early days of Johnny’s life was surprisingly superficial. Hundreds of thousands died, cities had to be rebuilt, ten percent of coastlines globally were lost, billions of dollars were wiped off stock markets. That’s not to mention the habitat loss and ecosystem change that resulted in several high-profile extinctions, as well as many more low-profile ones, but ultimately all of this could be recovered from. Remember that for the first six months or so most people genuinely thought the world was coming to an end. One time in those first few months when Johnny was suffering from a cold, he cried and coughed all night long. Unable to alleviate his suffering his parents feared the worst. Many leaders of various nations, numerous top scientists and thousands of celebrities reached out to offer their services. Mary, who by this time had been awake for twenty-eight hours, angrily slammed the phone down, drew the curtains and hurled the wireless router to the ground. It was during the peak of his fever that a gigantic purple cloud rose over the skyline of New York City. The cloud coalesced into the shape of a disembodied head with pointy ears that hung menacingly over the city. Thousands of observers swore that as the night went on this head appeared to break into a menacing grin. That night was the darkest it had been in New York for a century thanks to wide spread power failures. When the fires erupted across the city, the flickering light of the flames and the eerie glow of the purple head were all that framed the skyline of human achievement. Every person who saw those fires and that demonic apparition was certain that this was the last night of the human race. By morning New York City was gone, but humanity was not. Johnny could be victim to misfortune and illness that in turn caused his suffering, just like any baby. There were also times where he was less deserving of sympathy. While taking one of his first walks outside with his parents (taking care of Johnny was a full-time job for both Mary and Fred) they were approached by their old friend Gerard. Gerard had stuck by the family through those difficult years and was their closest friend. He was also one of the few people they could leave Johnny for a short while without the world coming crashing down around them. On this particular morning there was a pleasant breeze gently cooling their skin. It was warm but not yet hot, as the sun was still low in the blue and white sky. As they walked across pavement and parkland, following in whichever direction Johnny’s lead took them, Gerard waved to them from across the street and bounded over. As soon as he arrived Johnny began crying, then screaming. Mary held and bounced him, Fred took a hold of his little feet and began to wiggle them into doing a dance, but still the child screamed. As Gerard positioned himself over Johnny, he began playing peek-a-boo, trying to placate the small king. When two birds came crashing down from the sky landing on the pavement next to them, Mary and Fred knew it was time for Gerard to leave and for another dose of sedatives for Johnny. But it was already too late. As they looked up from the broken birds smashed on the ground, they saw a red tear leaking from the corner of Gerard’s left eye. He stood limply for a moment and then collapsed into a heap on the ground, lifeless. In response to this Johnny only roared more. Forcing his parents to move on and leave their friend there on the ground as they walked on under the pleasant blue sky. Still the world kept turning. With infinite patience and unconditional love- it really was unconditional, there were no two ways about it. With the complete sacrifice of their own lives, and with a steady trickle of sedatives that Johnny chomped down like bubble gum, Fred and Mary somehow managed to keep their little family, and by association the world, together. Years passed and other than the occasional rumbling, the world mostly forgot about Johnny and his long-suffering parents. They were good parents and for all the difficulties they faced they still loved their Johnny, as a parent must. There were protests when the news broke that Mary was expecting another child. “The risk was too great!” they shouted on the streets. ‘One Johnny is enough,’ the slogans held above their heads read. Banners with ‘One Earth, One Johnny’ sprayed across them, dangled from the buildings as people marched below. As had been seen at previous encounters between Johnny, his parents, and the rest of the world, there was little the world could do. Around the time Johnny was four, Mary gave birth to Johnny’s younger brother. Again, when he was seven, Johnny found himself with a little sister. During both births the surface of the Earth shook, but this did not herald the coming of yet more spawn with the power to blot out the sun. It was merely a nervous Johnny cowering in the corner of a hospital room. His mind was clouded in a haze of fear for his mother, and his stomach churned in anticipation at meeting his siblings.
4 When Johnny went to school the children and teachers alike were mostly silent around him, though they were always quick to return a smile. As a rule, they avoided Johnny to whatever extent he would allow. How closely a given individual had to interact with Johnny was down to luck of the draw- Johnny being the one holding the gun. Johnny had gotten better over the years, his capacity to not cause catastrophic damage seemed to have increased. Having younger siblings meant he had to learn some give and take- it was either that or the world would have ended. It so happened this was the timeline where Johnny mostly kept his cool and the world kept on spinning, there were others where life did not fare so well. Most of the learning was on the part of his siblings however, they had to learn quickly how to keep Johnny happy. Johnny did develop a degree of theory of mind, if not outright empathy. He came to understand that others did not share the same level of self-awareness as him. His little brother seemed unable to help the fact that he wanted to copy whatever Johnny did. So long as Johnny continued to be better at any given thing, all was well as far as he was concerned. His baby sister cried for reasons that were not even of concern to Johnny. Occasionally howling winds and ball lightening would calm her, occasionally not. From this Johnny grasped that they simply did not have the self-control he did, what was a choice for him, was apparently not a choice for others. In his own mind Johnny developed extraordinary levels of tolerance- in reality, he was severely emotionally stunted and incapable of recognising the sentience of others for more than a few seconds at a time. While he identified early on that there were apparently people who had lower levels of self-awareness and control than him- namely his infant siblings. Johnny remained oblivious to the fact that there might be- and in fact were- a great many more people in the world who surpassed him in these fields. Examples of such enlightened beings would include his parents, every adult he had ever met, and all but the most late-blooming of his peer group. Johnny was of course the leader of his reluctant group of friends. They all got on happily enough for the most part, not understanding why their parents made a point of telling them to play especially nicely with Johnny. Regardless of understanding they did as they were told, as children do. Johnny would never be invited around a friend’s house, unless he brought up the idea first. Johnny, then and later in life, never considered this relevant, though he did notice- he was just brighter and had more ideas than others, so he thought. He had the unshakable sense that many of his friend’s parents would be pleased to see him leave the house when the time came, but he didn’t let this bother him. Unless he held onto to them especially tightly friends seemed to trickle away from him like water through cupped hands, but that’s just how people were, he assumed. Of course, if he persuaded them, they quickly came back into his fold. As he grew older Johnny came to suspect that people tried to keep him at a distance. Whenever he tackled these suspicions head on however, he would be quickly proved wrong, as those nearest and dearest to him proved their desire (or perhaps just willingness) to be around him. The truth was that there was no distance great enough at which to keep Johnny where he could not still profoundly affect the lives of his friends, their families, communities, and the world at large. “I don’t care what the teachers say,” would proclaim some bold and foolish young boy- it’s always a boy. “What’s that? What do they say?” Johnny would ask, shaken from his dopey preoccupations. He was a bouncy child, his blond locks waving innocently over his forehead as he addressed the youth raising his hackles at him. “Nobody’s allowed to poke fun at Johnny. Johnny is special. Johnny can have extra dessert if he wants. Johnny gets to pick teams. Pick Johnny first. Johnny this, Johnny that, it’s rubbish! You’re not so special.” Then this boy would scowl, perhaps kick him in the shins, or fling some mud at him, maybe put a worm down the collar of his shirt. “I don’t understand,” Johnny sniffed. “Don’t you want to be friends? Here do you want this?” offering this unwise challenger some treasure he had no doubt recently acquired from one of his other ‘friends’. “You’re a freak!” the child would scream. Freak, it’s such a harsh word. It sounds like hate and yet it slips off the tongue so easily. We are too cruel to one another, and children are too self-centred to consider the impact of their actions, let alone their words. Johnny might have a silent tear run down his cheek, or fall flat on his belly and start screaming, pummelling his hands and feet against the hard ground. When the sky darkens at midday and hail the size of fists crashes down on a summer’s afternoon, children and adults alike tent to lose their confidence. This is how many of Johnny’s friendships began, it’s also how some of them ended- or at least tried to.
5 On the whole Johnny’s life was peaceful. He never had to get stressed the way most people do, he never got an upset stomach from worry about what to do next. He was constantly assured that he could do whatever he wanted to do. As for the things he was less sure about, there always seemed to be a path already conveniently laid out for him. Lucky, he called himself. From a young age he always managed to somehow scrape through whatever obstacle was the current landmark of his life. On the rare occasion he whole-heartedly strived for something he excelled, but the rest of the time he was just lucky. He managed to pass his school exams with little work. There was one time when he entered an exam and began to feel his face growing red, tears stinging his eyes as he looked at the questions and realised he had no idea what to do. As fortune would have it there was a bomb scare, and everyone was sent home. The next week when he sat the exam again Johnny had done no more preparation, but the exam questions had changed. What’s more, this time the students could ask for assistance if they needed it. Johnny didn’t need any help however and passed with room to spare. The rest of his life seemed to follow this course, rarely was he forced to confront the hardships of life. He remembered leaving school and celebrating with his group of friends. He didn’t receive the highest grades, but he did better than most- the examiners board was well aware that he probably wouldn’t have accepted any less. Johnny did notice that his friends didn’t seem as impressed with him as he might have expected, or indeed as they were with one another. Perhaps it was just expected from him, he thought. Maybe his success was never in doubt, so when it arrived it was taken for granted. Johnny, in his naiveite, tried to plan his future in such a way as to ensure he remained in contact with his ‘good friends’. But just as he would finalise his plans- whether it was which university he might go to, or which city to take a year abroad in, which jobs he would apply for- something new would come up and they would go their separate ways. Ultimately Johnny could live with this- he had no trouble making new friends. When he met someone he liked, Johnny made it very clear how he felt. He often claimed the existence of a special bond with his new friend, and with such easy sentiments they were bound to him. He sprang this bond upon people with such haste, that often his ‘friends’ found themselves in a situation where they would have to remain as two-dimensional or caricatured versions of themselves for Johnny’s pleasure. He hadn’t taken the time to get to know them before declaring to anyone who would listen that he knew them best. Over time they might be able to convey enough of the complexity and contradiction of their personalities that Johnny would become bored of them or claim to have out grown them, but for most it was simply easier to be what he wanted them to be. Johnny couldn’t tell the difference between his own projections onto the people he called his friends and the reality of the person on the other side. As far as Johnny was concerned, he was accessing the very deepest version of the person he was imbuing with his presence- perhaps he was even giving them access to levels of their own identities that were previously unknown to them. He was an excellent judge of character, he told people repeatedly. Fortunately for everyone, Johnny’s stunted emotions did not require feats of social gymnastics from those he came into contact with- he was easy to please. Even when he strove for deeper relationships and attempted to emulate the phenomena of love as he saw it in the world around him, Johnny managed to reduce these interactions to little more than the mechanistics of sex. This was of course an awful experience for the girls he would attempt to woo. At first they would offer some resistance, but after a talking to from some shadowy representative of authority (this was unbeknownst to Johnny of course), they would comply with whatever Johnny’s wishes were. “Follow but never lead,” that was the best advice they could be given. It was not so much that Johnny was a bad person, but the conditions of his up bringing left him emotionally malnourished. The fault was undoubtedly with his parents and the world at large, but all parties had tried their best given the circumstances. Johnny managed to pass through his young life remaining ignorant of the world and its hardships, he acquired no inner turmoil to drive him. He was simply the boy who had always gotten whatever he wanted, and this was no different. Usually these ‘relationships’ came to little more than intercourse a handful of times. If he was feeling particularly in need of validation it might involve some public hand holding or perhaps a meal out in a restaurant. Once Johnny had obtained whatever he required from the interaction or got bored- whichever came first- it was over. This would come as a relief to the young women. Getting trapped within Johnny’s simulacrum of life and love was a fate that may well have been worse than death for some of them. They did not have the right to choose death over Johnny, the shadow figures would advise them- if they ever asked. The unfortunate objects of his affections just had to hope whatever dance Johnny did with them would be short lived, it usually was. His luck continued, the world seeming to jump at his command, though it would never come of its own accord. Johnny rose through the ranks of employment, status, material attainment, romantic kudos, and other such pyramid schemes faster than anybody else. Though an almost inaudible doubt remained buried somewhere within the tumult of his thoughts- why didn’t people rejoice in his successes more? In one particularly challenging role, in which he had made so many mistakes that he became convinced he was going to be fired, he was promoted to manager on his first day. The staff all claimed they saw something in him, though none of them were particularly forthcoming when he suggested they should all go out together for the evening to celebrate. Whenever Johnny reached out to a friend he had not spoken to for a year or so they would reply to him immediately. They were always thinking of him they swore, just about to get in touch when he called. Sometimes he didn’t reach out to anyone but would work himself into a fury, raging and fixating upon his doubts as to the reasons why no one really cared for him. Then the freak weather would start, or the oceans would begin to congeal, or cities be hidden beneath a blanket of impenetrable smog, the air thick with toxins. Then those very friends he was lamenting would take that as their cue to reach out to him. Telling him that when life would force them to remember what was important to them, it would always be Johnny that popped into their heads. It was strange, more and more Johnny found himself doubted the things people said. He would go through phases in which he became convinced of differences in the way people were with each other, and the way they were with him. But when his old friends reached out said that catastrophe made them think of him, Johnny found himself believing them. So it became the norm that Johnny was the one who always managed to make the unbelievable deal, to settle the dispute, to impress the nonchalant, to be the most loved, to get the girl. In his most private thoughts though, Johnny felt there was something that rang hollow about his experience. It was an absence of something which he had never seen directly and so could not name.
6 Rodger was Johnny’s latest acquisition. They had met through work and within a day or two Johnny was telling him with great enthusiasm about the depth of their connection. Johnny was currently sat in one of Rodgers housemates’ bedrooms, on a threadbare carpet with several other people with whom he was newly acquainted. All were previously aware of Johnny. Over the tumultuous years the various world powers had established a tight perimeter around Johnny. Although this could never be perfect and Johnny would occasionally manage to escape through the net, mostly he only ever met people who had already received at least some training in how to behave should they encounter him. The system was based upon the degree of removal from Johnny based upon possible actions he might take. From waking up and going to work via his normal route, to booking a spur of the moment flight to the other side of the world. Almost everyone on the planet had heard of Johnny, but the closer their lives came to his, the higher degree of training they would receive. There were even specially trained Wardens, brave men and women who had sacrificed their previous lives in order to become agents of the elite JSD, the Johnny Security Detail. These Wardens were placed at various points within and around Johnny’s sphere of influence, poised ready to step in and manage any situation should someone unintentionally (or intentionally) cause any disturbance that might threaten Johnny’s stability. There were two Wardens at the party, both had previously been involved in a number of active assignments, though Johnny was unaware of ever having met or seen them before. All but one of the other party guests were three degrees or less removed from Johnny. This meant they had all previously engaged in role plays, training exercises, and received classified information pertaining to ‘The Johnny Phenomenon’. The party had been planned for a few days, meaning there had been plenty of time to prepare. They all knew how to act and had several adaptive scripts to work from. “Yeah,” Johnny drawled with pleasure, “saved the team a good bit of time with the changes we implemented. Isn’t that right Rodge?” Rodger laughed to hide his discomfort at being called Rodge. “That’s right Johnny, you’ve helped us out a lot.” Johnny’s eyes quickly darted over the faces in the room, attempting to gauge their reactions. Some met his gaze, others remained looking at Rodger as he spoke. Johnny smiled at a select few, feeling a little jolt of pleasure when they smiled back at him. “I mean it was just pretty basic stuff, I can’t believe no one had thought of it before. I guess you just needed a fresh pair of eyes. Helps to be awesome as well though, right?” Johnny laughs and looks around the room for approval. It was unclear whether Johnny was been self-deprecating or simply trying to impress. No, that’s a lie, it’s perfectly clear. It was the latter, performed much in the same way an infant would try to impress grown-ups by telling fantastical stores with no connection to reality, the words barely forming complete sentences. Everyone laughs, some more awkwardly than others. The well-trained, including one of the Wardens, make eye contact with Johnny, tacitly offering him reassurance in this skin crawling situation. Rodger slaps a hand down on Johnny’s shoulder and beams at him. If only he would calm down a little, he thinks to himself, he was almost bearable if he could just shut-up for a minute. “What’s going on with you then, Dave?” Rodger asks, nodding to the attendant for whom the party was to be originally thrown, attempting to steer the conversation on from these tumultuous waters. “You ready for the move?” “Yes,” Dave replied briskly, clearing his throat and making sure to glance and smile at Johnny before speaking. “We fly over on the nineteenth, can’t wait.” “Oh yeah? Where you heading?” Johnny asked in his unappointed role as senior conversationalist. “I’m moving over to New Zealand with my family,” Dave said, failing to completely conceal his joy. “I just thought why not, life’s short, right?” “Oh great,” Johnny said flaccidly, “my brother was over there for a while, came back though. Hey Rodge, did I tell you how I set him up at GazCorp when I left?” “Oh, is that right?” Rodger replied, trying his utmost not to sigh. “Yeah, I was just doing him a favour. My kid sister was pretty jealous though! I had to promised I’d do the same for her when the time came.” Johnny smiled showing them his teeth, imagining how he might appear to an outside observer and how he might most effectively present them with his best side. “Fascinating,” Dave muttered under his breath. “What’s that?” Johnny snapped, his insecurities flaring up in an instant like a festering wound. His eyes wide and blazing in Dave’s direction. “Oh,” Dave said flustered, dropping his gaze submissively down to Johnny’s knees. “That’s interesting, did he like it there?” Everyone in the room was aware that this was the well-worn formula for interactions with Johnny. A topic comes up, Johnny interrupts to give his opinion on it, if the opportunity arises you should feign interest in what he says, eventually when he gets bored of one topic the next comes up. Repeat, repeat, and if you’re lucky, rinse him away. On the rare occasions Johnny engaged in a conversation to a depth beyond this formula and the superficialities of his own ego, he has usually been too intoxicated to remember the details. “Like what, New Zealand? Nah, not especially- otherwise he wouldn’t have come back and taken that shit job I got him!” Johnny laughed loudly, once again looking around. Later downstairs in the kitchen, Johnny had been trailing after one of the guests at the party for some time. They had not exchanged more than a few words, but his frequent eye contact would have been disturbing were it coming from anyone but Johnny. It was still disturbing, but not so unexpected as it might have been from someone else. His mockery of the other guests intensified when he was around her, in an apparent attempt to impress. As she smiled obligingly at his most recent obscenity, he took the opportunity to move closer to her. With a crude gesture and a whisper of something worse, he enacted his usual routine of seduction. Surprisingly for everyone in the room, the woman made a repulsed sound and quickly walked out. A friend of hers- in reality not a friend but another one of the Wardens- apologised to Johnny for the woman’s behaviour and ran out after her. The party held its breath as Johnny half-heartedly guffawed, trying to shrug off the unfamiliar rejection and accompanying minor public humiliation he had just endured. Luckily for everyone, it was at this moment a rather drunken Dave stumbled into the room. This provided an opportunity for Johnny to make a scene at Dave’s expense, which he did. Dave however had already endured what he could in response to Johnny’s earlier defecation on his dreams and was feeling subversive. “Ha ha,” Dave laughed exaggeratedly back at Johnny, “that was so funny! Wasn’t it everyone?” The Warden who had followed Dave into the room placed a hand on his chest trying to calm him, but it was slapped away angrily. “No,” Dave roared, “what kind of life is this anyway? Our whole fucking lives revolve around this asshole!” The Warden was trying to edge Dave back out of the room when Johnny called for him to stop. “Hey-hey, someone’s had a bit too much,” he laughed, mock- slurring his words. The irony of this was that Johnny spoke with a perpetual slur due to the large doses of sedatives he took, of which he was completely unaware. “Let him stay. We’re all having fun, right? What’s the matter Dave buddy?” Johnny walked across the room to Dave, putting an arm around him. A few people took this opportunity to leave the room. Johnny Guideline number six- the fewer witnesses to any ensuing embarrassment, conflict, or other anxiety provoking situation the better. Not that any of them could get far enough away from Johnny to be unaffected should he become unhappy. Dave’s eyes flashed malevolently as he moved in closer to Johnny, slipping away from the Warden who was still trying to manoeuvre him towards the door. “Oh, it’s nothing pal. I’m just tired is all,” Dave sighed, his voice suspiciously gentle. “It’s been a stressful week, you know. What with about all these storms over the coast, the floods, the power cuts. Hell, it’s been a stressful life Johnny. How did it get like this eh?” Any discussion with Johnny concerning the calamities that had befallen the world since his birth was strictly off limits, Dave was well-aware of this. Attempts had been made throughout Johnny’s life to try and ask what he thought of the state of the world, but little progress had been made. Whenever the slightest allusion to the mere concept of a possible connection between Johnny and the state of the world was made, Johnny would become uncomfortable, necessitating a rapid change of topic. No-one even knew whether Johnny was aware of his powers. The consensus was not in on which option would be preferable. The Warden’s eyes widened in horror at Dave’s words- this was way beyond his pay grade. After rocking backwards and forwards for a moment in neurotic deliberation, he placed a friendly hand on Johnny’s shoulder and excused himself. Promising to be back in a minute. “What’s with that guy?” Johnny couldn’t help but comment, as the Warden left the room. “What do you think, eh Johnny?” Dave interrupted him, not acknowledging his babbling. “It wasn’t always like this was it?” “I, I dunno,” Johnny wavered, “this is basically how it’s been my whole life. It’s just normal now- we’re still here though, right?” “I sometimes wonder. . .” Dave wavered for a moment, as if deep in thought and about to reveal to Johnny the precious stone of his innermost being. “It’s like, I sometimes wonder if it’s me, you know? Like, my fault somehow.” “What, you Catholic or something?” Johnny quipped, impressed with himself and trying to ignore the dampness of his hands. “No, you know what I mean. Maybe like when I get angry or behave wrong it somehow affects more than me. Ha, maybe I’m just an awful person and the world wants rid of me. Come on,” Dave says pleadingly, looking too directly into Johnny’s dark eyes, “don’t you ever think all this pain and suffering might have something to do with you?” Neither Dave nor Johnny noticed the subdued screams from out on the street, as people collapsed to the ground gasping for air which would no longer fill their lungs. Nor did they notice the steady brightening of the night, as the moon started hurtling towards them. Dave didn’t notice these things as he was frozen to the spot, an invisible hand having reached inside of him and coiled itself around his lower spine. He couldn’t move or scream but simply stood there straight backed, as pain shot through his body. His spine and hips felt as if they were a balloon being inflated to its limits and about to explode. Johnny just stood there next to Dave with a foolish smile on his face. Trying to look as if Dave had said something which didn’t make sense, when in fact it had made perfect sense to him. Dave’s words had thrown him back into a memory of his childhood, one which he had not recalled for many years.
Johnny must have only been six or seven years old and was sat on his bed looking down at the sheets below him, seeing nothing and sniffling. Sitting across from him were his mother and father, they had just explained to him how it was his fault the dog had died. “But I didn’t touch him!” Johnny had screamed. He didn’t need to, they told him. His anger, his fear, and sadness, all leaked out of him and spread out into the world, destroying whatever it encountered.
Johnny didn’t understand- couldn’t understand- and so forgot this strange memory. It lurked in the dark corners of his mind, occasionally rearing its head out as he fell to sleep or battled some infection, always retreating in the harsh light of day. Both men stood there in the kitchen, motionless. People scrambled around the house and out on the street, panicking, trying to determine what they were meant to do. Reports of disasters were coming in from around the world. A heat wave was soaring across the Amazon, instantly turning it into desert. Several satellites had fallen out of the heavens and were burning up on re-entry. The ice caps melted ever faster. The Warden had already reported to his superiors cause of Johnny’s disturbance. Calm him down, was all they had said. He began looking around for someone, hoping she had not left the vicinity. The next thing Johnny knew, Dave was being carried awkwardly out of the kitchen. Someone on each side, dragging his unnaturally ridged body. The woman who had earlier walked out in response to Johnny’s crude advances was standing in front of him. She twirled a strand of her long brown hair around her index finger and smiled suggestively at Johnny. With her hand on her hip she swayed backwards and forwards, gyrating on the spot, her eyes fixed intently on him. Johnny wasn’t sure what she had been saying, he had gone blank there for a minute. As he focussed on her she reached out and touched his chest, letting her hand slide down the front of his torso. When he looked at her questioningly, she laughed, as if he had said something funny and impressive, though he was not aware of having said anything. She was wearing a thick, black, tight-fitting jumper over her slim figure. It had vertical stripes made apparent by variations in the texture of the wool. Johnny liked the jumper and said as much to the woman. The woman’s name was Meredith, and she would become Johnny’s wife.
7 The various world powers decided when Johnny was still a child, that the best prescription for keeping him stable was to do all they reasonably could to prevent him from forming deep and meaningful attachments. This feat would have been hard enough for Johnny to achieve even without their interference, due to his particular condition. “Let us remember,” the leader of a nation famed for its tolerance exclaimed, “Johnny is not really so different from any other little boy or girl.” “He can be quite adorable at times,” an official witness added for the record. “However,” the head of a well-known conglomerate with a particular interest in maintaining market stability countered, “the consequences of his temper tantrums are anything but adorable. We need to do all we can to make sure he lives as flat a life as possible- a life devoid of the highs and lows of human experience.” “Preposterous-” “Never heard of such a thing-” “What gives you the right-” “It’s not a life, we’ll create a monster-” The mogul looked over all the faces in the room, waiting patiently until they had all expressed their earnestness and moral outrage. When everyone who had something to say had gotten it off their chest, he held them in a controlling silence for a moment before continuing. “These might be the experiences that we most cherish. Indeed, they are the very things that make us human, but it is simply too dangerous to expose this child to events that we know create upheaval in even the most balanced individuals. If this child can live a life half-asleep, then we as a community might just make it through this particular episode in our history.” From then on it was decided that a conscious effort would be made to prevent Johnny forming healthy relationships. As we have seen, Johnny fought this with tooth, nail, and word. He forced his company upon his peers. At first this was not so strange, as Johnny really was (as one world leader had once said) in many ways just a normal little boy. Children make friends easily. There was many a child who went home, excited to his or her parents about their new friend. It was not just simply here that the various world leaders, the JSD and its Wardens would intervene. They had already impregnated almost all forms of media, art, and culture with subliminal symbols designed to discourage interacting or sympathising with Johnny or any Johnny-like being. Then there were various institutions, masquerading as the bedrock upon which to form our world view, when in fact they were breeding grounds to propagate the ideology of isolating Johnny. Consequently, it wasn’t necessary for world leaders to concern themselves with these youthful friendships. Besides, there was the network of Wardens should anything resembling true friendship blossom. Though even without the prompting of a Warden, most parents were quick to do all they could to sever any ties between Johnny and their own little terrors. As the years rolled by Johnny was slowly warped by these constant unseen pressures and endless rejections. Once a relatively normal child- at least in a social sense- it was through the continued stifling and severing of his attachments that Johnny became this overinflated and fragile ego. From there on in cementing the impossibility of his forming meaningful relationships. In a world that was turned by the power of love, even removing the recipient and reciprocator from Johnny was not enough to extinguish the flame. He learnt to emulate the fragments of love that he witnessed in the world around him. And although it was only his own reflection that he could see when looking at another, Johnny tried his best. This false-love played out in shallow waters for much of Johnny’s life. It was not a pleasant experience for anyone, but the suffering ran its course and over time changed and faded. These interactions took on a special significance in Johnny’s mind, where they became a kind of north star in any search for meaning. He began to mine depths of feeling within himself which, regardless of their origin, were as real as anything in the world without. So when Johnny met Meredith- whether it was genuine chemistry that only Johnny was sensitive to, or whether it was the circumstances of their meeting exacerbating a repressed biological drive. Johnny reacted with an increased intensity of ‘feeling’ towards her. For his part, Johnny did try to listen. He tried to take into consideration how she might feel. He would even attempt to communicate with her on the rare occasion he realised he had done something to upset her. In his own juvenile way, he respected her. Not as one should respect another person. Nor did he respect her as he did himself, but he respected her as something valuable to him. Considering Johnny was raised in a custom-built world devoid of such emotional and spiritual richness, it’s quite remarkable he achieved this much of a transformation. Creating something where he had experienced nothing. None of this changed the fact that Johnny was Meredith’s God. She could not leave him, and he would not let her go. She had to offer him the mask of happiness- at least when he expected it. The world leaders made it clear to her- as they had done to many before- that she had to see it through. Meredith gave all she had to the balancing act of keeping their interaction as shallow as possible, while still reciprocating just enough to avoid aggravating him. This was a hard rope to walk and despite all her efforts, she fell. Warning signs appeared after a year when they were still together- something Johnny had never managed before. Within two years they were married. In five they were welcoming their second child into the world. Johnny’s life encroached more and more into the areas of real human strife. With a wife who was increasingly resigned to her role. With two babies who could not put the concerns of their father before their own. With all the inevitable problems that arise from a life as rich and full as Johnny’s was becoming, enough was enough. The world powers realised that Johnny could no longer be sheltered from the stresses, nor the deep joys of life. They knew the burden of all that had been, and all that was yet to come for him. Since the birth of his children Johnny had forgotten to take his regular dose of sedatives twice. During one of these episodes several hundred pacific islands were forever lost beneath the waves. At the birth of their first child, Johnny had been so moved that the sun blazed fifteen percent brighter for over an hour. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of people been left permanently blinded across the Eastern Hemisphere. At present both of his children were teething. It was clear to those in power that things would only become more unstable, as Johnny’s life continued along the tracks he had lain towards ever greater normality. Finally, after thirty-three years, it was decided to confront Johnny with the details of his life. They would do so in a controlled environment far from populated areas (not that this would make any difference should things go wrong). The plan was developed and would be implemented with the help of specialists ranging from hostage negotiators, Buddhist masters, and senior consultants. They would also ensure Johnny had a stronger dose of sedatives on hand to help him process the revelations. No matter the consequences, this had gone on long enough. They would tell him everything.
8 “Yeah, I guess I’m a pretty big deal,” Johnny bragged to the unresponsive chauffeur. The limousine they were in roaring through the barren landscape. It had taken some time for the various world leaders to come to an agreement concerning the specifics of this all-important conversation with Johnny. It was surprisingly easy however to persuade Johnny to be driven out into the middle of the desert- they told him he had been shortlisted for a job opportunity of great importance. That was it. They had more backstory ready, but that was already enough to convince Johnny. So there he was, in a limousine, cruising over the scorched earth. “Grapefruit juice?” Johnny asked, holding a can up to the rear-view mirror. “No thanks,” declined the driver. The driver- whose name Johnny had not asked- listened to the tall-tale of Johnny’s life. From his apparently poverty-stricken upbringing, to the brilliant success he had made of himself. The cultural, economic and educational hurdles he had overcome despite all odds. From one career to the next, Johnny was the mover and shaker. Companies headhunted him, he was a like a guru to several well-known celebrities, he had slept with many women, his wife worshipped him, his offspring were enamoured of him. Of all this Johnny assured the unanimated driver in his most comradely manner. “I guess I’ve gotten pretty used to riding in a limousine. I’m not sure I’d have gotten in anything less!” he laughs to the driver, who returns a feeble smile. “Yeah, I thought about getting my own for a while, but I don’t want to spoil my kids, you know? It’s hard not to though sometimes.” They drove on, past a small road side stall on the periphery of what would have otherwise appeared to be an abandoned town. Over the stall was a white banner with the words ’homemade lemonade’ printed on it, and underneath this ’genuine Trinitite’. They didn’t stop. Johnny was swept off in a daydream, wondering if the driver would have stopped if he had told him to.
Johnny’s limousine ride ended on the heat-shimmering concrete of a landing strip. He sauntered from the vehicle towards a bunker which had been redesigned in order to, at least at to the absent-minded glance, resemble a typical office building. To some an office building in the middle of the desert this might have looked more conspicuous than a bunker, but not to Johnny. He disappeared into the building, flanked by a couple of unarmed security guards and a team of specially selected negotiators, all of whom were wearing suits designed by Johnny’s favourite tailor. The driver of the limousine leaned against its bonnet, watching this procession from a distance. He cracked open one of the cans he had previously declined. As he stood there in the wasteland sun, sipping his drink and attempting to make peace with whatever he had to make peace with, a woman strode across the landing strip to him. He involuntarily stood up a little straighter when he saw her approaching. “Well, you got him here. How did it go?” she asked, a pronounced resignation in her aura. The driver sighed, upturning the can and shaking the last few drops into his open mouth. “That poor guy. I hope they put him out of his misery. He told me four times that he had demanded this stupid drink before agreeing to come. He thinks he’s a genius- about to be offered the keys to the country or something. I’m not sure how much longer I could have handled it.” “Well you did,” replied the woman curtly, she seemed to have little sympathy for his suffering. “Anything, we need to know? Last minute changes?” “No. He’s calm, smug, dumb. I’ll tell you one thing though- and I’ll put money on it- that clown doesn’t have a clue what he’s into.” The woman emitted a gentle hum, unconsciously conveying her dubiousness regarding his skills of analysis. “We’ll see,” she said. Just then they both felt a rumble in the earth deep beneath their feet and looked nervously towards the bunker. The woman walked away without saying another word. The driver shrugged and pulled another can from the car and cracked it open, his eyes staring hungrily at the red cliffs off on the horizon.
Once inside Johnny was escorted into a simple room. The walls were bare save for one of them which had a large mirror running across it. In the middle of the room was a table with a pair of uncomfortable looking chairs on either side of it. He was told to have a seat and to make himself at home. Someone asked if he would like a drink before leaving him alone in the room. The intention was to give Johnny a moment to acclimatize to his surroundings without being under anyone’s supervision- just one of countless considerations made to facilitate the following moments going as smoothly as possible. Looking around the room, Johnny was reminded of one of the police interrogation rooms he had seen on TV. He would make a joke about it, he thought to himself comfortably as he slouched back in his stiff-backed chair. “Hi again Johnny,” said Dak Namison, the chief negotiator to whom Johnny had been introduced a moment before. “Hi,” said Johnny in a voice that was smaller than he intended it to be. “Sorry for keeping you waiting buddy, I’ll take a seat just here,” Dak said, closing the door and sitting across the table from Johnny. He gave Johnny a warm smile, his hands placed flat on the table in front of him. “OK so full disclosure Johnny, this meeting is not actually about a job offer. There’s nothing for you to worry about, but we want you to feel comfortable, so we have a signed note from your physician Dr Mallory Alevis. Here it is,” Dak said, pulling a note out of his jacket pocket and sliding it across the table to Johnny. “Basically, we would like you to take your prescription medication as and when you feel necessary. We also have some additional medication specifically for anxiety that you can use should you require them. Please feel free to take one now, if you like.” In a rare moment of stunned silence Johnny did as he was told, both because he was happy to oblige the softly spoken Dak, and because he needed to. His medication was a subject he had only ever spoken about with his parents and his doctor, who he had been seeing for as long as he could remember. Even Meredith didn’t know about his medication- or so he thought. Dak knew this was a delicate moment and swiftly went on with his well-rehearsed speech, smiling reassuringly all the while. “That’s great Johnny, thanks. Just take them as you need to, you know you can take as many as you need, right? You can’t overdose on those things. Again though, you are safe here, we just want to talk. Nothing for you to be worried about, ok?” “Sure,” Johnny coughed, his voice again sounding small in a way he had never noticed before. Wiping water from his chin as he gulped down a handful of his own pills as well as several of the new ones Dak had offered him. Johnny had been conditioned throughout his life to take his tablets at the slightest provocation and was thus more than willing to do so now when explicitly prompted. Not that Johnny understood what the medication was really for, or its significance to the state of the world at large. It’s easy to do something once you have done it before, even easier if you have done it many times. When you have done something every day of your life it can become like breathing- you don’t even notice it. Dak cleared his throat and began. “I want to tell you a story about the day you were born. . .” In a converted bunker in the middle of the desert, Johnny was finally told of the events that occurred on the day of his birth. He was told as delicately as possible how almost all freak accidents and catastrophes that had befallen humanity during his lifetime were a result of his behaviour, thoughts, moods, and reactions. He responded with sombre nod’s and the occasional sniff, his eyes wide and unblinking. Fidgeting hands unconsciously funnelled more pills into his dry mouth, as the weight of all the world’s problems was placed across his frail back. He was told how his entire life had been constructed in order to ensure he could live with an unnatural ease. It was for the benefit of the whole world rather than for his own personal enjoyment, Dak had said, almost apologetically. Still despite their best efforts there were incidents. Did he remember the tsunami that ravaged the West Coast when he was a child? The earthquake registering 9.6 that ripped southern Europe in half? The list went on. They had tried their best to protect him from the hardships innate to human experience, and for the most part they considered their mission a success. Everyone one he ever met was already aware of him, many were specially trained to monitor and manage his condition. Those who were in regular contact with him were counselled daily, given tactics for managing any problems that might arise, and were financially compensated for their troubles. The people he had been surrounded by were essentially his playthings. Had he never thought it odd how often he got his own way? How rarely he had to lessen his grip on an ideal to form that most human of things- a compromise? It was around this time that Johnny struggled through thickening saliva for the painful words. “What about Meredith? What about my Wife? I want to speak to her.” It’s hard to understand the framework of ones’ life. We tend assume the shape of a thing is as it should be, normal, forged by evolution, settled by gravity, as natural as the tree in the forest. Of course, few people have ever seen the tree that would be there if nature had its way. It is the same with our words and concepts- the dividing lines we draw between one object and the next across the field of sensory information constantly bombarding our minds. Minds that are in no way ‘normal’ or ‘as they should be’, connected to some platonic realm of absolute truth. Forged by evolution, yes- with the sole purpose of enabling us to eat for long enough to mate. Do you recognize that the way you feel about yourself is the result of the tens of millions of adverts, television programs, images, stories, words, billboards, songs, and the countless other cultural artefacts that you have been exposed to from the time before you were aware of your own existence, up until this very moment? That every conversation you have ever had could only be constructed of the elements of that world outside of you? That the very thoughts arising from the core of your being can only be comprised of- if it’s not just outright plagiarising- the objects of that framework. In receiving this new information your framework shifts a little, grows. Now think back to five years ago and how different your own framework looked then. Unrecognizable some would say, some would hope. Your neighbour, how different must they be from that which you are now. We all dine at the same all-you-can-eat buffet of culture, but the range of choices on the menu boggles the mind. “But for you Johnny we have controlled all these interactions. We have simplified the world around you, to in turn simplify you. All of the options on the menu were made of the same ingredients, ingredients selected to make you docile, peaceful- we hope happy- though that wasn’t our primary concern. Can you even imagine the mammoth task we have undertaken? Your life is truly extraordinary, in more ways than one.” Dak said all this in such a way that an impartial observer might have accused him of being distastefully enamoured of the process he described, though no such observer was present. “I don’t understand,” Johnny blurted, pills rattling around in his mouth. “I want to speak to my wife.” “We thought you might,” Dak sighed, and with a pitying smile he handed Johnny a phone. “She’s been briefed and is on the line.” “Meredith?” Johnny whimpered into the phone. “Yes Johnny, it’s me,” his Eve echoed on the other end of the line. Johnny gasped at the sound of her voice, as if it were enough to relieve him of all his troubles. He held onto the moment and then, seeing Dak staring at him, he spoke into the phone. “Do you know what’s happening here? Is it true?” “It’s all true Johnny,” Meredith said softly. “The most important thing is for you to try and keep calm, are you taking your medications? We’ve got reports of inactive volcanoes around the world starting to show signs of coming back to life. There have been a series of earthquakes all around Yellowstone.” “Ok. . . I’m sorry,” Johnny said mortified. He shovelled another handful of tablets into his mouth and topped up his water. “I know you don’t want to hurt anyone Johnny, you just need to keep calm during this.” “What about us Meredith? What about the kids?” Johnny asked, the many things he had taken for granted brought into a sudden clarity. “Hasn’t Dak explained all that to you?” she asked, finding an unexpected trace of genuine sympathy in her voice. Johnny looked helplessly across the table to Dak. “Kids are too unpredictable Johnny,” he said, holding his arms out to demonstrate how powerless he was to change that fact. Johnny’s face seemed to crumble in on itself, his sadness consuming him as his face drooped into his hands. “Oh God no! There’s nothing to worry about Johnny,” Dak laughed, seeing his horrified expression. “No one would ever hurt your children, but they are a factor we can’t control.” Johnny looked back up to Dak who flicked his fingers towards Johnny, indicating he should take more medication. “We knew it was only a matter of time until, well. Until something pushed you over the edge. The world can’t afford for that to happen, hence why we are having this conversation.” Johnny nodded slowly, his eyes inward looking as he considered these words. Looking back out again to see Dak smiling patiently, Johnny poured himself back down the phone. “What about us Meredith? What we’ve had?” “Johnny,” she says patiently, “you’re not like anyone else. All your life everyone has come to you, given you the best they could. It’s all you have ever known. How can you be made happy when you have become numb to the fact, maybe never even felt, that the world is bowing at your feet. What we’ve had, all we’ve had, is you having what you want. I’ve never been a part of it.” “Don’t you love me?” he slurred, his eyes drooping as he struggled to hear anything over the din in his head. “I love everyone Johnny,” Meredith said exacerbated. It was as if she were repeating something obvious to a child and it was not the first time she had done so. “Everyone does, everyone apart from you. I’ve never felt love from you. There is so much about life, about being human that you just don’t understand. It’s like Dak said, the framework you have been surrounded by your entire life is different. It’s made you different.” “But I do love you,” he protested miserably, the words thick in his mouth. “No, you don’t Johnny. Your love- it’s not love. Even if it was, I don’t love you. There is no you to love. You’re just a black hole dragging anything within reach towards you,” her voice broke as she raced through those last words, having held them in for as long as she could stand. Johnny mumbles something and Meredith asks him to repeat himself. “Do you want to leave me?” “Yes, absolutely. If you will let me.” “Of- of course I will,” Johnny replied, making a deliberate effort to feel nothing. He had believed only moments before that he felt as much, if not more than everyone else, but now he found it surprisingly easy to empty himself. She was right, he thought, I am a black hole. He felt like a void in the world, occupying nothing and yet exerting some terrible force. “What about the children?” he asked flatly, already knowing the answer. “It’s best you don’t see them again.” She breathed heavily, growing impatient and becoming tired of the conversation. This he saw, was the truth of his wife. “Look, I’ve said all I can say Johnny. Can I go now?” He gulped at the stagnant air. “Ok, Ok Meredith. I’m sorry. Look, I wish you-” Johnny stopped speaking, she had already put the phone down. Another deep breath rattled its way through him. With shaking hands, he reached for the bottle of pills and began sleepily fishing them out one by one and placing them onto his tongue. The door swung open and a woman stepped through. She was not noticed by Johnny who seemed to be struggling to remain upright in his seat. This isn’t working, she silently gesticulated, pointing to Johnny. She then turned and left the room, as protocol dictated. “Johnny,” Dak called to him warmly. He reached across the table to place his hand on Johnny’s who snatched it away. In a sudden eruption of movement, four hands scrambled for the bottle of pills on the table top. Johnny had a head start and poured the entirety of their contents into his open mouth. Slumping back into his seat, a look of jealous pride, of pain and fear, consumed his face. He had once again satisfied his own stubborn will and could already taste its bitter fruit. Johnny mumbled something inaudible before closing his eyes, his tear jewelled lashes clinging together. Two people immediately burst into the room. Dak just sat there, struck motionless at not knowing the state of the world beyond those four walls. “Well?” he asked, holding his breath. “All stopped,” said the man. “Holy shit, it’s worked. What a mess this could have been,” said the same woman from a moment before. A muted disbelief engulfed them. “Johnny!” Dak shouted at the slumped figure sat across from him. Yelling eliciting not so much as a twitch. Though everyone else in the room jumped, shaken from their stupor. The other man hesitated on some unseen precipice before stepping towards Johnny and slapping him hard across the face with a rare malice. Johnny remained oblivious. “Simon,” Dak said reproachfully. Simon shrugged. Everyone in the room had lost someone to Johnny, most people had. They all understood. “So what do we do now? It looks like he didn’t know. Poor fool,” Dak said. “Kill him?” offered Simon. “No,” said the woman firmly. “We still don’t know what would happen. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, this could have gone a million ways. We’ve got lucky,” she inhaled deeply, pointing with a look of revulsion at the unconscious Johnny, “let’s not push it.” “Agreed,” said Dak, nodding to her. “We need to keep him like this and figure out how this happened, what it means- scientifically speaking of course,” she added, in case anyone should doubt her sanity. “If he has some kind of power, we need to know how to remove it, how to stop this ever happening again.” “It could take years,” Dak said in a daze. “It could, but imagine if we could use it, control it. Think of all the good we could do.” The three of them slipped into a tranquil silence. Each reflecting in their own way on all that had happened over the last three decades and finally seeing a glimmer of hope for the future. “Come on!” the woman shouted, sensing the need to snap them out of the moment. “We need to get him on a drip right now, dope him up to the eyeballs. I don’t want so much as a twitch out of him.” Simon nodded and left the room. “It’s done,” Dak sighed, looking up at the woman. “Not yet,” she replied unsmilingly, “The real work’s just beginning.” “I can’t believe he didn’t know. Didn’t have a clue,” he shook his head, a subdued and bitter laugh escaping on his breath.
9 Over the next few years there were only two incidents of note for Johnny. Both times a mistake had been made in the administering of his sedatives, allowing him to regain some semblance of consciousness. Both times it was the same Johnny that had drugged himself out of existence that was roused to the surface. He wallowed in pain, sobbing and clinging to the memory of his slumber. The ground shook a little before he was correctly dosed and returned to the black waters within him. He offered no resistance to this submersion, the world was not his anymore. Four years after falling into this deepest of sleeps Johnny was woken up, intentionally this time. Though no metrics existed to measure it, he was no longer the same Johnny who had once made the earth tremble before him. Nor was the body he found himself in the one he was familiar with. His arms felt lighter, his cheeks sallow and sagged. As he ran hands that had forgotten how to feel over his body, he felt ribs protruding where before they had simply been, unnoticed and unimportant. He felt a space at the back of his head, neither tender nor numb, but it made itself felt. At first, he tried to ignore the sensation, but all alone in this unfamiliar room he had little else to do and so he reached back and felt his head. He had been shorn and could feel scars and bumps that were not there when he had gone to sleep. As he prodded and poked at the back of the head that felt so little like his own, he realised he probably shouldn’t be touching it. There was something hypnotic in the act of touch. He would have most likely gone on fondling his head had someone not chosen that moment to enter the room. He was left to return to the world of the living alone by design. There was no reason for anyone to be there to sooth him. It was a small cruelty to inflict, but it was one that they all thought reasonable. It was left to Dr Johannes to greet him once Johnny was able to interact with the world around him. Dr Johannes’ job was a simple one. “Good afternoon Johnny, my name is Dr Johannes. I’ve been on the medical team tasked with your care. Have any idea where you are?” Johnny clasped a hand to his throat, afraid he had lost his voice, this was not the case. He coughed and gave his quiet response. “Out in the desert?” “Do you remember what happened out in the desert?” Dr Johannes asked him. Again, Johnny coughed. The breath held in his tender chest was in short supply. “Yes,” he said, the memory still painful. “Good,” Dr Johannes said bluntly. “You’re not out in the desert any more Johnny. You were transferred to a facility here in the city. We have treated you here for the last four years. You’ll be pleased to hear that you are cured.” “Cured?” Johnny croaked, his eyes wide and white. “Of the problem with your temperament? Surely you remember?” Dr Johannes said, offended at the idea Johnny might forget his crimes. “I do. I just didn’t realise I could be cured.” “Well it took a lot of work, yes, a lot of money, but you’re no longer a danger to society. The scars might take some getting used to,” he said, pointing at Johnny’s head. “Still, it’s a medical breakthrough. Remove a few chunks of grey matter here, sever a few connections there, and no more harbingers of the apocalypse every time you feel like losing your temper.” “You know I didn’t mean-” Johnny began to say, but Dr Johannes carried on talking over him. “It wasn’t easy, but we did it. With you sleeping we finally had the opportunity to carry out an in-depth investigation into. . . Your condition. The last four years have been a return to a golden age, you wouldn’t believe how much things have changed. Anyway, I’m just here to tell you you’re free to go.” “Go,” repeats Johnny, feeling the shape of the word in his mouth. “Go where?” Dr Johannes pulled a face that made Johnny’s eyes sting and emitted a sound clearly indicating he couldn’t care less. This was matched in kind by Johnny as he gasped back a sob. “Now come on, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Dr Johannes snapped at him, apparently angry at Johnny’s reaction. “They could have switched off those machines that have been keeping you alive three months ago, or you could be on your way to prison right now. Instead you have had yet more time and money invested into you. The staff here have worked very hard for you Johnny, a little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.” “But where can I go?” Johnny pleaded with him, “I don’t have anywhere, anyone. I don’t have anything.” “Well that’s how it is for the rest of us. We don’t all get the kind of start in life you had Johnny- life’s hard. You can’t expect any more from us. I’m just a Doctor here, my work is done. If you want to complain you’ll have to take it up with someone else.” Johnny’s blood pounded deafeningly through his ears as this new reality closed in. His attention retreated into the taking of slow and steady breaths, sporadically clenching his stomach to prevent himself from being sick. He missed Dr Johannes calling for the guards and was already being lifted onto his feet by two large men, each grabbing him at the back of the neck by the thin hospital garment he wore. His legs scrambled for the floor as he was dragged out of the room. He looked pleadingly one final time towards Dr Johannes, who just shook his head, lips pursed. Dragged through a network of corridors and passageways, Johnny couldn’t lift his gaze up from the tiled floor as he slipped along it. His body felt foreign to him, it could barely support his own weight let alone keep pace with the titanic figures forcing him on. As they entered a wider corridor, Johnny saw a set of double doors up ahead, and with it the brightening glare of the outside world. “What am I meant to do?” he begged, craning his neck to look at one of the guards. The same guard laughed back at him. “You can have a taste of what life is like for everyone else. You’re not so special anymore.” Johnny was lifted from his feet and hurled at the door, bursting through it he landed hard on the concrete outside. Momentarily blinded by the pain that racked his frail body, by the time he turned to look behind him the doors had already swung closed. His only companions nowhere to be seen. For a moment he considered trying to go back, but what was the use? Rolling around like a drunk, he propped himself up onto his hands and knees and looked out at the world before him. He was at the top of a vast set of stairs leading down onto a wide street. He saw towering buildings and busy streets with vehicles rumbling by. A few people cast him the occasional accusatory glance as they walked past. Brown leaves wrinkled and crisp rustled along the dry paving slabs. His hand was involuntarily tapping at his chest in search for the pills when he realised, he didn’t need them anymore. He got slowly to his feet, wobbling and almost knocked off balance by the sharp winds slicing through him. The sky was heavy and grey, and as Johnny looked up the clouds burst. He felt the first few drops of rain on his face, unsure of what was happening. He started to wipe at the moisture which only served to spread it around as the tempo of the raindrops increased. Within moments everything is drenched, and Johnny is soaked to the skin. He smells the sweet chemical tinged perfume of the earth as the dried filth is washed from the streets. He feels the shape of his scarred head as the raindrops run over it. He feels his cold-hardened body as the clothes placed on his back cling to his frame. He breaths deeply, the air fresh and easy, clearing his lungs. His eyelids flutter as the rain hits them. He feels the impact of a thousand tiny drops and hears the rain’s song all around him. He sees the splash of water as the drops impact upon the ground and then leap back up for an instant, trying to overcome gravity and return to the place they had been, only to fail every time. The rain slowed and Johnny came back to himself. He had no memory of ever having been rained on before. He looks down the stairs and to the street. Further along there is a junction where another street intersects with this one. His eyes scan over the possibilities that lay before him. Wiping the rain from his eyes Johnny smiles wide, his lips pulled tight against his teeth. For the first time in his adult life he doesn’t automatically moderate his smile out of concern for how he might look to others. He walks forwards, taking the steps down onto the street, heading nowhere in particular.